I happened to stumble across a sermon of mine from three years ago about the cross of Christ, based on the Gospel reading for this coming Sunday (Mark 8:31-38). Here it is, with a few cuts and edits. At risk of understatement, it is possible to detect the influence of Tom Wright, whose book on the cross (The Day the Revolution Began) I had been dipping into at the time. (I’m now reading it properly.) Enjoy!
At the end of 2009, Time Magazine announced the top 10 films for that decade. And top of the list was that epic disaster-thriller, and one of my favourites: WALL-E. The basic plot of WALL-E is like that of many films and stories. Something has gone horribly wrong with the world; then something unexpected happens, and things get put right. So, in WALL-E, planet Earth has been reduced to a rubbish dump. The surviving members of the human race are living on a spaceship, eating junk food and staring at TV screens. But then a probe called EVE is sent from the spaceship to earth. And EVE is noticed by a miserable little robot called WALL-E. And WALL-E falls in love. And eventually this leads to humanity coming to their senses, and ultimately to the whole planet being renewed.
And that’s a bit like the story we find in the Bible. We find a world that’s gone horribly wrong. But then something unexpected happens. And that leads to a series of events that means that, eventually, everything will be put right and everything will be renewed.
And in our gospel reading today, we see what that unexpected event is.
Imagine that you are God. How would you fix all the world’s problems? How would you get rid of all the violence? How would you get rid of all the injustice, the poverty, the hunger, disease, disasters, death? Would you scrap it and start again? Messages in the sky? Is it that people don’t have enough information? Would you download facts into their heads? Would you get rid of all the bad people? Would you click your fingers so that people are suddenly really nice to each other? What would you do?
Well, here’s the answer. God’s way of putting the world right is, not a robot called WALL-E, but God taking human flesh as some insignificant guy in the Middle East, and being executed by the Romans.
We’re slap bang in the middle of Mark’s Gospel today, and this is the turning point of the whole thing.
The first half of Mark’s Gospel tells us about who Jesus is. And it leads up to the verses immediately before our reading. In those verse Peter reaches a high point. Jesus asked his disciples, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Peter got in there first: ‘You are the Messiah.’ Yes. Jesus is the Messiah, the long-awaited King of Israel.
But then, immediately after that, Jesus drops this bombshell. Jesus ‘began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again’.
And that’s what the second half of Mark’s Gospel is all about. It’s about what it means to be a follower of a Messiah who is going to be crucified. It’s about following Jesus in the way of service and suffering and self-denial.
But it doesn’t make sense! It didn’t make sense to Peter in his world. And, if we’re honest, it doesn’t make much sense to us in our world either. Think of Peter’s reaction. What?! The Messiah is going to be betrayed and put to death? What on earth is Jesus talking about? Peter thought the Messiah was going to come and restore the kingdom of Israel. He thought Jesus was going to be this military leader, this warrior, who would win a great victory over the Romans. But now Jesus is saying he’s going to be executed by the Romans. It doesn’t make sense.
Why did Jesus have to die?
That’s the question I want us to think about for a few minutes.
Why did Jesus die?
There are lots of ways in which Christians have described Jesus’ death.
People describe it as an act of love. ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only Son’ (John 3:16). But that’s about motive. It’s about what motivated Jesus to go to the cross. But it doesn’t explain why dying on the cross was an act of love.
Two people are walking together by the river. One turns to the other and says, ‘I love you so much, I’d do anything for you.’ And then jumps in the river and drowns. Is that an act of love? No. It’s a pointless waste of life.
Two people are walking together by the river again. One trips and falls in. The other jumps in after him, and brings him to shore. But then that second person gets swept away and drowns. Is that an act of love? Yes.
So if Jesus’ death was an act of love, then why? What did it achieve? Jesus was crucified between two other people. What made his death different to theirs?
People also describe Jesus’ death as a victory. When Jesus died he defeated all the powers of evil.
But how? How does dying on the cross mean that evil powers are defeated? Lots of other people died on lots of other crosses, and they didn’t defeat the powers of evil. What made Jesus’ death different?
Then people have described Jesus’ death in this sort of way. They say that, in order to deal with the problems in the world, it was necessary for God to take on human flesh, and to die. And that death will then be like a sacrifice offered to God, or something offered to pay the penalty for sin, or something like that.
That might be part of the answer, but it leaves so many things unexplained.
God could have entered the world as … a Mongolian nomadic farmer, and he could have been killed in an accident with a camel. Would that have dealt with all the world’s problems?
I think the way to make sense of Jesus’ death is not think in abstract terms, but to see his death as the climax of all that God had done already in the Old Testament.
Something like this …
Jesus’ death and the Old Testament
Once upon a time …
The reason people were created was to populate the world, to take care of the world, to make it more and more beautiful and magnificent, and to prepare it to be filled with God’s presence and God’s glory and God’s love.
But people made a mess of things. They rejected God’s loving rule, and started serving other gods. They made gods of money and sex and power, and filled the world with violence.
But then God picked one man, Abraham, and said that through Abraham and Abraham’s descendants God would sort things out.
Well, Abraham’s descendants ended up as slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. But God rescued them and brought them out, so they could serve him in the Promised Land. That was the Exodus.
But Abraham’s descendants, the people of Israel, were just as bad as everyone else. They rejected God’s loving rule and served other gods instead. So God sent them out of the land into exile in Babylon. But then some of them were able to return and to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. But it was never as good as it had been before.
But then Jesus came along.
And he knew his family history. He knew he was descended from Abraham, but that Abraham’s vocation hadn’t been fulfilled, to bring blessing to the world. He knew that his ancestors had been slaves to Pharaoh in Egypt. But now his people were slaves to the Romans, and to all sorts of evil powers. He knew that he was descended from King David. But he knew that his people were waiting for another king to arise, a descendant of David. He knew that his ancestors had sinned and had been sent into exile in Babylon. But he knew that those sins hadn’t really been dealt with, and that they were still waiting for God to return to his temple. And Jesus saw all of these lines of history coming together in him.
So why did Jesus have to die?
I don’t know if you’ve ever fried an ant with a magnifying glass. But it’s as if all the evil in the world was focused together onto Jesus, so that as he died, evil died, injustice died, death died. Jesus, as the climax of all that God had done before, and as a representative of humanity, in his death and in his resurrection, relaunched the human project.
And the question for us, during this season of Lent, and every day, is whether we will follow Jesus. Whether we will entrust our lives to him. Whether through baptism we will die with him to the old way of being human, and rise as members of a new humanity. And whether we will go through life as members of his body, the church, eating and drinking in his presence, living lives of service and suffering and self-denial, and taking up our human vocation again, to make this world more beautiful and more glorious, so that we and the whole creation may one day be filled with God’s presence and God’s love.
Jesus ‘called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.”’